Dáil Adjournment Debate
Thursday, 14 July 2011
Deputy Jerry Buttimer:
The worrying extent of the impact of alcohol has been revealed by the first national report on trends in alcohol-related death. The report of the Health Research Board shows such deaths occur in all age groups, from teenagers to the elderly. The report examines alcohol-related deaths, looking at those caused by poisoning and non-poisoning deaths arising from medical and traumatic causes. It also examines causes of deaths for people who are alcohol dependent.
Almost half of the alcohol-only poisoning deaths recorded in the report occurred in the 40 to 54 age group. Two thirds of the cases were male. While alcohol is a factor in deaths in all age groups, its fatal effects are most evident in middle-aged men. Poisoning deaths caused by alcohol and other substances peaked in the 30 to 34 age group while the median age is 48. Again, two thirds of the cases were male.
Of the recorded non-poisoning deaths of people who were alcohol dependent, three quarters were male. Approximately nine out of ten cases were due to medical causes. The most common medical cause was alcoholic liver disease. One startling point is that this disease accounted for one third of deaths due to medical causes of alcohol dependent people in the 25 to 34 age group. The report also details deaths that involved alcohol among people who were not alcohol dependent. Two thirds of these deaths were due to traumatic causes which included drowning, choking and falling.
In 2009 the average adult in Ireland drank 11.9 litres of pure alcohol, double what was consumed in 1960. Clearly, with such an increase in alcohol consumption, there has been a change in our social habits. The stark reality of this change is brought into focus by this report. It shows that as a society we need to look at our lifestyle habits. The Health Research Board has shown that alcohol is having a fatal impact of the lives of many people.
In moderation alcohol is enjoyed by many people without the impact of its potential harmful consequences. For some it is a social lubricant; for others it provides a temporary escape. Unfortunately, there are those for whom alcohol becomes a crutch, upon which they become dependent. We must ensure those who suffer from the side effects of excessive alcohol consumption are provided with the appropriate health care.
Lifestyle choices do not only result in alcohol-related deaths. They can also be causes of obesity and type-2 diabetes. The stakeholders led by the Department of Health, Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Health Service Executive, along with the drinks industry, must examine steps to reduce the impact on health of lifestyle choices.
We must also develop lifestyle awareness initiatives to show the effects of excessive alcohol consumption and to encourage social choices which are not alcohol dependent. Through education and awareness, we can reduce the consumption of alcohol which in turn will reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths. It is important we have a debate on how we consume and use alcohol. The report of the Health Research Board should be a wake-up call for all of us. This report should not be allowed to pass without considering how to minimise the negative effects of alcohol. Will the Minister of State outline the implementation of the recommendations of the Health Research Board’s report?
Deputy John Perry:
I am replying on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly.
Alcohol plays a significant role in society. However, it is no ordinary commodity. Alcohol is responsible for a considerable burden of health and social harm at individual and societal levels. The recent statistics published by the Health Research Board showed a rise in alcohol-related deaths between 2004 and 2008. These findings are from the first ever national report on trends in alcohol-related deaths and deaths among people who were alcohol dependent from the national drug-related deaths index. It showed there were 672 alcohol-related poisoning deaths recorded between 2004 and 2008. Two thirds of those who died were men and the majority were aged less than 50 years. The study also recorded an increase in the annual number of non-poisoning deaths of people who are alcohol dependent from 508 in 2004 to 799 in 2008. Most of these deaths were due to medical causes such as liver disease and cardiac conditions.
Irish adults drink in a more dangerous way than in many other countries. In 2009, the average Irish adult drank 11 litres of pure alcohol. Irish children are also drinking from a younger age and drinking more than ever before. Over half of 16 year old children have been drunk and one in five is a weekly drinker. The average age of first alcohol use in Ireland decreased from 16 years of age for children born in 1980 to 14 years of age for children born in 1990.
Additional significant information is that alcohol is a contributory factor in half of all suicides and is associated with 2,000 beds being occupied every night in acute hospitals. One quarter of injuries presenting to emergency departments are linked with alcohol. Many who drink alcohol also use other drugs, thus placing themselves at greater risk and complicating treatment responses.
In recent years, a significant shift has occurred in the share of alcohol sales from pubs to the off-trade sector such as dedicated off-licences and mixed traders such as supermarkets. The substance misuse strategy now being developed will focus on alcohol in particular and be taken in conjunction with the national drugs strategy as the overall national substance misuse strategy until the end of 2016. The terms of reference of the steering group include to review the evidence and best practice and decide on appropriate structures and frameworks with an effective implementation plan for the national substance misuse strategy. In particular, the strategy will address issues such as alcohol supply, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research. As part of an extensive consultation process, the steering group invited individuals and groups to submit their proposals on alcohol.
Given the range of health problems that can arise from alcohol consumption or where alcohol is a contributory factor, a central theme emerging is the need for a population health approach with regard to alcohol. While acknowledging that personal responsibility is important with respect to alcohol use, the State can play a crucial role by intervening to address the factors that cause difficulties and by tackling the negative consequences involved. The central aim is to reduce the amount of alcohol we drink in society. Increasing the age of initiation into drinking is seen as an important step towards achieving this.
Price, availability and marketing of alcohol are key factors in supply. Below-cost selling of alcohol should be banned. Prevention measures are also important and the strategy will consider how best to promote across society healthier lifestyle choices with alcohol. This strategy will also consider how best to develop a national integrated treatment and rehabilitation service for alcohol-related disorders and to encourage those affected to engage with and avail of such services.
The report of the national substance misuse strategy will be finalised at the end of September 2011. Following this, the Minister for Health will bring proposals to the Government which will address the broad range of measures required to prevent and tackle the harms caused by alcohol use and misuse.